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Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Malegaon precipice

Fringe groups and secessionist movements question the legitimacy of the state, but despite imperfections India survived as a legitimate state. But now every single mainstream political party openly questions the legitimacy of the state

Written by Pratapbhanumehta |
November 18, 2008 11:20:18 pm

Whatever may be the facts of the case, the aftermath of the inquiry in the Malegaon blasts has already become an ominous watershed in our politics. Much of the debate has centred on peripheral issues: the semantic squabble over what this kind of terrorism should be called, if the facts turn out to be true. Then there is the numerical worry: if true, how widespread is this kind of activity? But these questions simply deflect attention from the seriousness of the crisis. We are now moving towards a monumental tragedy. To see how deep the rot is, just think of the following five issues.

Fringe groups and secessionist movements question the legitimacy of the state, but despite imperfections India survived as a legitimate state. But now the amazing thing has happened. Every single mainstream political party (repeat: every single mainstream political party) now openly questions the legitimacy of the state. Some political parties believe the state apparatus is unfair to minorities, some say it is grossly manipulated to assault the majority. Each questions the methods, techniques, objectives and impartiality of the state. They disagree on everything else, but on one thing they are agreed: you cannot take the state at face value; it is out to persecute, trap, and conspire against someone or the other. Essentially, this is the state we are in.

After the BJP is done with what the state is supposedly doing to Hindus, and after the UPA is done with what it is doing to Muslims, does the Indian state have any shred of credibility left? If the mainstream political parties don’t trust it, what can we say to anyone else who questions the legitimacy of the Indian state, like the Kashmiris? Most states lose legitimacy because they are found to be manipulating the facts. We have pulled off the remarkable feat of rendering the facts irrelevant. No matter what the facts, the state has been declared untrustworthy even before it can render a final verdict. Can you imagine any political society surviving if all its main political parties acted as if the state were fundamentally untrustworthy?

Second, political discourse has now locked itself into a vicious circle. Members of the BJP, such as Rajnath Singh, have committed themselves to the absurd proposition that innocence and guilt can be settled purely by definition. A large number of religious leaders, including Baba Ramdev whose contribution to public health is more admirable than the state’s, have already pre-committed themselves to a position. They are sending the signal that no matter what the outcome of the case, their minds are made up. Can a liberal democracy and the idea of public reason survive this form of pre-commitment?

But third, this mobilisation of religious groups will have hugely damaging consequences. No matter what the verdict, some group will feel victimised. Suppose the accused really are guilty. If the state finds them guilty it will now only feed into the absurd persecution complex some Hindu youth have; if the state finds them innocent, some people will draw the lesson that Hindu perpetrators cannot be punished. It is harder to backtrack after taking such strong public positions. Either way, we have sown the seeds of further resentment, discontent and rebellion. This is the real downside of powerful groups taking pre-committed positions so forcefully.

Fourth, there is the sheer absurdity of the state’s conduct itself. Many of us have long worried about the legitimacy of so-called narco analysis; it seems both inhumane and unreliable. The one silver lining that may come of this is if the majority of Indians finally wake up to the brutal realities of police method. But after so much experience handling high-profile cases, the law and order machinery has still not evolved any protocols to disseminate information. Hypotheses become facts, lines of investigation are treated as settled conclusions. This allows the build-up of great conspiratorial frenzy in the public sphere: Delhi police’s version of Samjhauta supposedly contradicts the ATS’s and so forth. It is almost as if every organ of the state was designed to fuel controversy, not resolve it.

Fifth, each case like this only deepens the chasm between the communities. In the middle of the stories of the Malegaon investigation, there was a huge story about dozens of Muslim youth in Andhra being falsely arrested and tortured. It would be nice for a change for the BJP to go after the Andhra government for seriously violating human rights. It would be nice for the BJP to recognise that this kind of conduct of the state towards Muslim youth will only sow the seeds of further alienation. And here was the ultimate irony. To date, the Andhra government had been accused of shielding suspects from the police; now it looks as if it blatantly violated human rights. It is possible that both stories are true, but it would be nice if each political party focused on both arguments. Conversely, there would be a huge impact if there were a cross-community alliance protesting against things like narco analysis, making common cause on investigative techniques. Those who are willing to acknowledge that the accused in Malegaon might be guilty nevertheless excuse this as retributive action rather than the original sin. We are now locked into a suffocatingly vicious “my community versus yours” discourse, and even the most ardent liberal citizen cannot help slipping into it. Meanwhile, the victims slip away from consciousness, as abstractions in an ideological war.

What are the solutions? One can of course say obvious things like “let the law take its own course”, “build institutions that can act impartially”, “political parties must cool off”, “we are all citizens, don’t let religion divide us”, etc. Our tragedy is that these truths sound so tired and so implausible. We are now like characters in the Mahabharata: the accumulated weight of past misdeeds, and the formations of our nature have reached such a point that simple solutions seem unimplementable. The burden of our pre-commitments makes us unable to make any simple gestures of hope. Solutions are easy to propose. More than solutions, we need some deep thinking in the sense that Hannah Arendt mentions as an antidote to evil: the kind of thinking that is not lazily waiting for someone to propose solutions, that can penetrate to the roots of our psyche rather than remain trapped in entrenched divisions and superficialities. It is not overdramatic to say that we are nearing a precipice, and only something quite drastic can prevent our steep fall.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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